Scarlett Crawford ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Q&A with Scarlett Crawford

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 09.05.2018
Artist to work with local people to create art around the UK's Race Relations Acts
The artist Scarlett Crawford has been appointed by the UK Parliament for a new project entitled First Waves: Exploring the impact of race relations legislation in the UK.

A series of workshops across the UK will create artworks with local people to explore and celebrate the 1965, 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Race Relations Act.

Can you tell us a little more about First Waves and how you came to be involved in it?

Over the course of my residency, I will hold workshops with six partner organisations across the country to create artworks with local people which explore and celebrate the 1965, 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts.

The artworks will be exhibited at the partner organisations later this year and then displayed in the Palace of Westminster for an exhibition in 2019, which will look at the impact of race relations legislation and the stories of the people who fought for change. The artworks will then be returned permanently to the communities who inspired and made them.

I first heard about the commission through a network of black artists on social media. I applied for the position, and told them about both my work in the community and my art practice. I was excited to hear that the UK Parliament wanted to explore the impact of the race relations acts, as most of the themes of my work are based on issues of race and class.

Having just completed my masters at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, it felt like the perfect opportunity to combine my research, lived experience and creativity on a project that would reach so many people.

Whose stories are you hoping to discover through the project, and what kind of artworks will you be producing?

We will be working mainly with photography and sound, although we will also explore mark making and curation. I hope all participants will find a way through the various mediums to express themselves and tell their stories. It’s great that the project is going to be a national one, as much of the focus on race relations is often on London.

To visit cities and work with some great organisations; Glasgow Women’s Library, Race Council Cymru, Peabody in Thamesmead, Nottingham Contemporary, Liverpool Bluecoat and the University of Leeds, will I’m sure bring in a wide range of people from various community groups that have been impacted by the race relations acts.

Why do you think art is a good medium to explore this topic?

Sometimes words are not enough. For a long time people of colour have been expressing their stories to deaf ears in the UK. However, since Brexit we’ve seen the impact of a hostile environment created by far right rhetoric, towards non-indigenous British people, by both the media and politicians. Reports of racism have risen by 41%.

It is vital that we educate people, in government and beyond with counter narratives. Because we interact with photographs on a day to day basis - more than say sculpture or painting, we are literate in how to read and analyse them. Most people feel more able to access meaning from them and are more comfortable using it as a means to express themselves.

Many of the people taking part in the First Waves project will have never seen someone like them in a gallery space let alone the Houses of Parliament. This is why diverse representation matters. Creating powerful participatory works of art directly from the people who have lived prior to the change in legislation, can only help us learn how to do better in the future.

The first of the workshops took place yesterday - how did it go?

We could not have had a better start to the project. The Glasgow Women’s Library is by far one of the best places I have ever worked at. The variety of ways that they engage intersectionally with the community is astounding. It is a living breathing arts space. You can tell this is felt by everyone who attends as they have a steady stream of people visiting their library, the archives or one of the group activities they are hosting.

The support that they’ve given me and the community groups that they’ve found made today great. The women who attend were predominantly from south Asian backgrounds and they had so much to share. I felt like I was at home and I’d literally only been with them for a few hours. Their ability and willingness to get involved with each activity to turn them into their own expressions was very powerful.

The issue of institutional racism has been prominent in recent weeks following the exposure of the Windrush scandal; has that had any bearing on how you've chosen to approach First Waves?

I will definitely address this in all of my workshops and share with them how the scandal has affected me personally, as my father came over from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. I was appalled that I had to make sure that he was OK to stay here after living here for 53 years. The saddest part was that everyone I know was disgusted but not surprised.

It made me realise how important the First Waves project could be in giving the very people affected by this scandal, the opportunity to express their feelings. From the beginning I didn’t want anyone to be under the impression that the stories we will hear during this project will all be positive. That doesn’t mean that they’re not worth listening to.

To honour the strength and determination of people who have fought and won, in many cases for their right to be here - be that legally or culturally, is vital. Education really is the key to fighting racism. Telling the real history of the men and women who came to this country from the numerous countries Britain colonised, is the first way to begin to do that.